January 2020: "Livin in a Perfect World"

For those 80’s music lovers, one band that is probably included on your list of Best Bands with Songs to Lip Sync to while Using Your Hairbrush as a Microphone is Huey Lewis and the News, an old favorite of mine.  Who among us has not be-bopped our way through their pop hit, “The Power of Love” featured in the movie Back to the Future?  Today, though, I want to highlight the lyrics to “Livin in a Perfect World” another Huey Lewis classic. The lyrics begin with the phrase, “Everybody's looking for the perfect world”.  

Over time, many of us have developed a sense of determination and grit to help us set high achieving goals, create a strong sense of purpose and, ultimately, fulfill our desire to make a difference in the world. Others, however, have fallen - consciously or not - into the trap of pursuing, yet never quite attaining, perfection. As a recovering perfectionist myself, I speak from experience.  Regardless of how much time, effort and heart we put into a task, we perfectionists are never completely satisfied with our performance. This can result in a chronic underlying sense that we will never quite measure up which, in turn, leads us to pressure ourselves to do better.  

There is a vast difference between what we may call high achievers and perfectionists.  A high achiever strikes a balance between following her passion, committing energy and effort to a task and asking for help when necessary. On the other hand, a perfectionist often holds himself and others to unrealistic standards while clinging to the need for a strict sense of order and control. Because perfectionists often fear making mistakes, they play it safe, rarely ask for help, and avoid even healthy risk taking.

I am sure many of you know someone who demands perfection not only in themselves but in those around them. This can be physically and emotionally exhausting for everyone. And because they believe it is likely that others will reject them, perfectionists often turn their own self-critical lens outward to mask the dissatisfaction they feel within themselves.  This can manifest in many different ways.  

How do you respond when another driver cuts you off in traffic?  Do you become aggressive and retaliate putting yourself and others at risk?  If the steak you ordered comes out medium-well rather than rare, do you take it out on the server?  When your morning train is running behind and it becomes clear that you will be late for an important meeting, do you silently fume for the remainder of your commute?

Although we can all experience perfect moments, say the unconditional love of a puppy, a newborn’s first smile, or a surprise rainbow after a storm, life promises to disappoint those who expect perfection in themselves or in others. In our work with our students, it is vitally important that we distinguish between kids with a healthy drive to achieve and those who may possess characteristics of perfectionism. 

Perfectionism can be linked to anxiety and depression. In a recent newsletter, Effective School Solutions pointed to a 2019 study published by the Journal of Abnormal Psychology in which researchers analyzed data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.  This survey has tracked drug and alcohol use, mental health, and other health-related issues in individuals age 12 and over since 1971. When researchers compared responses generated in the years 2005 and 2017, the data showed:  

  • An increase of 52% in symptoms consistent with depression in 12-17 year olds
  • An increase of 71% in serious psychological distress in 12-17 year olds
  • An increase of 47% in those having suicidal thoughts in 12-17 year olds

These are alarming statistics. Although there are a host of contributing factors, a handful of which include an increased feeling of isolation, over-involvement with social media and even decreasing levels of sleep, we adults would do well to give serious consideration to the subtle messages we may be sending our kids about our own expectations for them.  

We want our students to set high expectations for themselves in school and in life. There are healthy ways we can help in this regard.  For one, we can teach students to accept, embrace and learn from mistakes. After all, haven’t we learned a thing or two from our own past mistakes? Our kids deserve the freedom to make and learn from their own mistakes just as we did. We can help by celebrating their small successes and then building upon them gradually rather than hurrying them along to the next crucial goal. There is no rush.  Life is not a race. Finally, we can embrace who they are in this very moment. They will feel valued and appreciated.  

Our friend Huey is right when he writes that nobody’s perfect and “there ain’t no perfect world”. It is time to let go of our perfection-paralysis. Today and in the days to come I encourage you to look for - and to celebrate - the first perfect moment that comes your way.  

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